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"GIVE US THE BALLOT"

Every year, for one day, politicians from across the political spectrum pay lip service to the legacy of Dr. King. They praise his calls for justice, tweeting out the most familiar and anodyne of his invocations. They extol his devout faith, careful to uncouple it from his withering critiques of systemic injustice. They sanctify his vision of a better, more harmonious world while scuttling away from the work MLK repeatedly told us was necessary to build one.

They “dream” with him, in short, with one eye open.

This year, the moment of this great man’s hard-earned holiday is tinged with a particularly bitter irony.

Presented with the opportunity to guarantee the right to vote, more than half of our government has turned its back on one of Dr. King’s most fundamental goals. Indeed, all their doubletalk fails to conceal that, for an entire major party and its various enablers, the full enfranchisement of voters of color must be prevented at all costs.

In a landmark 1957 speech in D.C., Dr. King said, “All types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote.”

65 years later, “all types of conniving methods” are still obstructing Black people (among others) from voting. Those methods now take the form of byzantine rules designed to make it harder for certain traditionally Democratic voters to cast their votes: “purges” of voter rolls; exacting, unequally applied rules on registration forms; onerous restrictions on registration drives; radical reductions of polling places in minority communities; and anything else the dirty tricksters can conjure. Extremist groups, meanwhile, add a paramilitary layer of outright intimidation.

The difference between then and now? In King’s day, the segregationists, in the midst of levying their poll taxes and suborning the KKK to attack civil rights organizers, decried MLK as a communist, a subversive and a moral infection attacking the impeccable order of American (and especially southern) life.

Now, the people doing the same dreadful work praise him on social media once a year. They reserve their red-baiting, racist venom, meanwhile, for Stacey Abrams, AOC and other activists who don’t have holidays named after them yet.

Those once-a-year flatterers of Dr. King’s legacy must do all they can to shut down the Black vote because it is mighty. Indeed, it poses an existential threat to their death-grip on the levers of power. The long excerpt from Dr. King’s speech below makes this dazzlingly plain. That elected white supremacists now annually kowtow to the most unthreatening wisp of King’s image—much the way they might blandly, passingly acknowledge Chanukah or, say, jazz amid the ceremonies of their office—doesn’t alter the fact that MLK’s mission remains a stake poised over their vampire hearts. And while he spoke of “the South” as a locus of racism and inequality, what he describes can be found nationwide.

“Give us the ballot,” King intoned amid cries of “amen” and “yes” from the congregation, “and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”

Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.

Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.

Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a “Southern Manifesto” because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice.

Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human but the glow of the Divine.

Give us the ballot, and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May seventeenth, 1954 [Brown vs. Board of Education]. 

In this juncture of our nation’s history, there is an urgent need for dedicated and courageous leadership. If we are to solve the problems ahead and make racial justice a reality, this leadership must be fourfold.

First, there is need for strong, aggressive leadership from the federal government. So far, only the judicial branch of the government has evinced this quality of leadership. If the executive and legislative branches of the government were as concerned about the protection of our citizenship rights as the federal courts have been, then the transition from a segregated to an integrated society would be infinitely smoother. But we so often look to Washington in vain for this concern. In the midst of the tragic breakdown of law and order, the executive branch of the government is all too silent and apathetic. In the midst of the desperate need for civil rights legislation, the legislative branch of the government is all too stagnant and hypocritical.

When you see tributes to MLK on social media, take a moment to find out how the authors of those encomiums are voting. By their actions shall ye know them.

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